AFTER THE CEASEFIRES - Book / Exhibition / Film  After covering the Gaza war in 2008-2009 photojournalist Geert van Kesteren meets photographer Noa Ben-Shalom. They share experiences and wonder about the systematical oppression of individual freedom caught in a mix of ancient religions, tribal rules and high tech security measures. They discover that the citizens of these two nations no longer seem to possess a concept connected to the word peace. Do the people of this land still possess the ability to think beyond a cease fire?
BAGHDAD CALLING - 2008 This book approaches the daunting complexity of the war from the perspective of the individual refugee. What are the reasons for leaving behind hearth and home? There are 4,5 million Iraqi refugees living in Northern Iraq and the surrounding countries. They receive emails and photographs from relatives and friends who are still living in Iraq. Geert van Kesteren collected these mobile phone images and testimonies from the refugees to create the series Baghdad Calling. Without knowing him, one suspects Geert van Kesteren to be the punk of photo- journalism... Instead of pushing back, he embraces new realities. (‘Le Monde2’ on ‘Baghdad Calling)
JAZZ PHOTOGRAPHY Once a year I photograph a live jazz concert. For inspiration. Although it is impossible to photograph the essence of jazz - that you can only find in the moment - I try to share with these images the universal language of the most genius and spontaneous music. Mankind at his best! As antidote to the other images I usually present.
NUNUSAKU - STORIES OF MIGRATION / 2011. This project produced with photographer Conny Luhulima represents an univeral story of identity and migration. The Malukan people's struggle with their indegenous history and recent neocolonial past is symbolic of universal questions about culture and identity. Conny Luhulima portrayed living rooms of her family relatives - those living in exile in the Netherlands and those who still live in their native villages on the Maluku islands. Geert van Kesteren made a 4-screen video installation in which four Alifuru elders reveil the story of Nunusaku. An exhibition that challenges to explore the significance of identity and cultural diversity in an era of modern globalisation.
WHY MISTER, WHY? - IRAQ 2003/4. Already, what is being regarded as the second’s Gulf War’s equivalent to Vietnam Inc. has been published. ‘Why Mister, Why?’ by Geert van Kesteren is a photo book in the best concerned photographer tradition... a damnin indictment. ‘Why Mister, Why?’ is a partisan book and yet it is an even-handed one, if this is not too contradictory. Its questioning title WHY MISTER, WHY? - taken from the plea that many Iraqis apparently begged of the American troops - is reminiscent for the war in Iraq against Saddam Hussein. Van Kesteren, working for 'Newsweek', was embedded with US troops [for only six weeks] and saw behaviour that disturbed him. Yet, he points the finger of blame not at the men on the ground, but at the politicians who brought about the situation. (Gerry Badger; writer, curator, photographer and Martin Parr; photographer & collector, Magnum Photos in ‘the Photo Book: A history Volume II’)
iAPP WHY MISTER, WHY? March 2013, ten years after the invasion of Iraq, is a relevant moment for reflection on a crucial moment of our recent history.  The Iraq war resulted in the deaths of 150.000 to 600.00 people, while 5 million are displaced. Was this indeed a ‘just war’ as president Obama has recently said? Did it create a ‘domino effect’ of democracy and stability in the Middle East? Was the war in Iraq the ignitor for the Arab spring or an Arab winter? Or was the war one big disaster and a mistake - based on wrong assumptions and lies?  IN PRODUCTION FOR 2013-2014
ZAMBIA! ZAMBIA!  A journalistic road movie, a portrait of an energetic, yet worrisome Zambia. 'We keep winning and will never give up, until the needs and the right of people living with Aids and HIV are addressed in a fair way. That is typical a revolutionist, that is what I am. I am a fighter, I do not fight people, I fight systems.’ (Clemen Mufuzi, AIDS activist). Commissioned by the Dutch Institute for Southern Africa and Kunsthal Rotterdam, supported by Hivos, NCDO and Aids Fonds.
For the first in a new series of interviews on photography, film and politics, Mark Durden talks to the Dutch photojournalist Geert van Kesteren about his photo books Why Mister, Why?, 2004 and Baghdad Calling, 2008.

How did Why Mister, Why? begin?
I think it started right after the war when a CIA interrogator told me about abuses of Iraqi detainees in prison. 'I would not cage my own dog like that', he told me. I was surprised and thought: 'Hey the US wants to get rid of Saddam and then bring democracy to Iraq and this guy is telling me that the Bush government deliberately denies human rights and the Geneva Convention. How can one establish democracy and not act according to it? How is this going to work?'

Could you say something about the format of the book and how it circulated beyond the West?
Well, I wanted a photobook that would be read for its content and meaning. Editor Edie Peters and designers Mevis and Van Deursen helped me to realise this. We decided to make a book with a 'magazine-feel'. The book is thick and has more than 200 double-page spread images. War cannot be explained in a few photographs, it's too complex for that. The images were printed on very thin paper and the sides of the papers are roughly cut, like newspaper edges, to give the book a feel of urgency and that magazine-feel. I had about 12 photo stories that defined that period of time (2003-2004) in Iraq that was the aftermath of the war and the interlude of civil war: US soldiers raiding houses -searching for WMD, Saddam and insurgents-, the unearthing of mass graves, the Shia celebration of Ashura in Karbala, a Bomb blast at UN Headquarters, Saddam's arrest, violence, Baghdad's nightlife, etc.

On the job I had kept a diary and used these notes to write small stories; extended captions to the images in the series. The text is printed on bright white paper and cuts the double-page spread images in half. The text is bi-lingual, English-Arabic. Bi-lingual for several reasons: the Arabic letters are great for design, but more importantly I'd liked the Arab world to know what I wrote, an opposite attitude than the American army unit I was embedded with in Samarra. They were in Iraq for 10 months without a translator, without understanding Arabic culture. The Iraqis in Samarra could not speak English in return. On the door of an improvised lavatory at the army base was written 'WHY MISTER WHY?' The soldiers used this expression (the Iraqis meant so seriously) as a taunt: 'Dude give me a cigarette', 'Why mister, why?'

The book is known beyond the West and well received, but I must admit that I haven't been as successful in the Arab world in reaching readers as I have in the West.

I'm curious about the design in which some images are cut in half by the captioning pages of text. It disrupts our relation to the picture, makes us move back and forth between its two halves. It also draws attention to the edit and cut of photography itself, its limited pictorial field.
All photographs in the book are published over 2 pages. Here and there, text on four bright white pages cuts the photograph in half. It disrupts the filmic rhythm of the book, but only for a little moment. This way only half a photograph can be seen, unless you keep all 4 text pages straight up. The book can be read from 2 sides. An Arabic reader starts at what the English reader would call the end of the book and vice versa.

Some of the pictures in Why Mister, Why? seem to suggest you were embedded as a photographer, showing you photographing right beside US soldiers. This is especially powerful when you show them searching homes and forcefully suppressing Iraqis, a soldier's boot on the head of an Iraqi, for example. Could you say something about how the pictures were taken and what kind of relation you built up with the soldiers you photographed? I imagine they must have been anxious about you picturing such acts of physical violence and humiliation. At the same time, your presence would reassure the Iraqis the soldiers won't use too much force.
I was a non-embedded photographer in Iraq! I did a 10 day embed in Tikrit, a 3 day embed in Karbala, 2 weeks in Samarra, 1 day in Baghdad and 4 days in Balad, all on assignment for Newsweek. For the other five and a half months I worked by being not embedded. It took me a lot of patience and timing to get close to the (right) soldiers. I asked how they won the 'hearts and minds' of the Iraqis and they replied 'Iraqis will never like you, so they better fear you.' I asked how they made Iraqis fear them, they said 'come along with us, we will show you.' One of my images shows a soldier kicking his boot in the back of an Iraqi lying on the floor. It was published in Newsweek and when I came back for another embed with the same unit that soldier said: 'Great man, I will tell all the girls back home "My boot was in Newsweek"'. I asked the Captain, who was commanding officer, if he criticised that publication. He did not, but his superiors had shown objections for the fact that he was quoted saying the F-word. I always gave my images on a DVD to the soldiers when I left the base. I never left an image out and never got bad comments. When I finally left this unit the Captain said, 'Hey G-man, we did nothing wrong, did we?'

At the same time there are pictures when you show the soldiers in a more human light. There's one picture in particular which shows young soldiers being warned of what they might expect during a speech by someone from Combat Stress Control. We sense their youth and vulnerability here.
A Chaplain gave 'Combat Stress Control instructions' to 3 newly arrived young soldiers. One of the things he warned them against was masturbation and he told them not to visit the 3 Gypsy-looking ladies who were hanging around the base. These kids look up very scared, but in fact it was not only that, they were flabbergasted by the Chaplain's speech. In another photograph you see a young, smiling girl in shorts and sneakers at an army base: Melanie, a gunner on a Humvee. She dropped out of school, her mother -who had an American flag made of Christmas lights in her living room- told her she could work behind a teller or join the Army. Melanie told me: 'I used to be a cheerleader and my favorite color is pink, now I love guns, the bigger the better.'

There are some photos that show you are not embedded in Why Mister, Why? There's one where a masked insurgent shows his weapon to you and others where people show you their guns. Could you say something about the context within which these pictures were made?
When I worked in Iraq as a non-embedded, independent photographer, I focused on the culture clash between the Americans and Iraqis. Most Iraqis welcomed me as their brother, but some hated any foreigner, especially Americans to the core. The insurgent's image was not too important for the book. The culture clash is. In the insurgent's image you see the obvious, but in reality it is never obvious. Before I photographed that masked insurgent (with an Islamic text on his bandana) I showed him a magazine that featured an image of insurgents in Faluja, he said 'very good!' But when he turned the pages he saw a large photograph of 5 supermodels in bikinis, including Tara Banks with wonderbra! Again the man said, 'very good!' and laughed.

Has traditional photojournalism lost its importance and power? Your recourse to the book and gallery is part of a longstanding tradition of photojournalists turning to other forms and modes of display, dissatisfied by the constraints of the print media with its increasing focus on celebrity and fashion.
Not at all, photojournalism is alive. Today we have so many outlets; the internet, books, museums and galleries and, yes, printed media (that has a decreasing budget). Philip Jones Griffith told me: 'I think any photographer who believes in the media is lost', and I am afraid he is right. Working and publishing in the media is exciting -you reach so many people-, but in the end you are just another photographer working for an enormous organisation whose main business is selling 'attention'. I work by the ethical and moral ethos of photojournalism, but not to make it a lubricant for the media -all they want is that news can be easily consumed and sold. Many modern conflicts are fought out in the media, both sides of the conflict -established powers and undermining powers- use the news, or create it, to achieve their goals. The time and attention they can give to a subject is limited, for more in-depth reporting, you need slower outlets such as the book. That is a frustrating position to be in. As a photojournalist you are an autonomous unit observing the world from the shadow of the happening, with an open eye and often a promise to give voice to the people who gave you such an intimate look at a difficult time in their lives. The independency of the photojournalist makes it possible to look under the surface of news. The photographer alone is fully responsible for his reportage. It's a very personal way of looking at the world. In my books and exhibitions I have complete freedom to express that significant obligation, though the media gives me the possibility to be there and have a look and another outlet.

In terms of photojournalism, your pictures fulfill the dictum of closeness. You are there as witness at a time of the counter-insurgency in Iraq. But at the same time your view is restricted. We get a sense of the life on the streets in Baghdad, but we can never get close to the experience of those civilians. In many ways the strategy you adopt in Baghdad Calling makes up for this. Appropriating mobile phone images and digital photos by Iraqi civilians gives us an insight into what it is like living in Iraq.
Robert Capa was right: 'If you're picture aren't good enough, you aren't close enough'. Photojournalism is recording the human condition at a significant moment of history and that is all about access, about being there when it happens. For a foreigner I think I was very close to the Iraqi individual in the period that I made Why Mister, Why? (2003-2004), but as insurgency and civil war exploded in 2005-2007 it became impossible to have the same close access to the civilians. Over 200 journalists have been killed in 5 years. From 2005-2007 many areas in Iraq were ethnically cleansed, about a hundred militias were in charge. It was a story I had no access to, except the refugees. There are 4.5 million people who fled the violence. When I made Baghdad Calling I spoke at length with many refugees of different ethnic and religious backgrounds about the horrors that had befallen them, these interviews, personal accounts, did not in any way square up with my photography. It missed what I see as the cornerstone of my photojournalism: the laying bare of the essence of a situation and making that visual through the perspective of the individual. I got frustrated with the content of the pictures; they show the daily life of the refugees, but what does that give us? The refugee rents an apartment, tries to find a little job, lives off his savings and survives until the money runs out -for there is no outside support. This suffering is not as photogenic as refugees who flee destitute over snowy mountains.

In early 2007 I spoke with a group of doctors in Amman, Jordan, one of them showed an image taken using a mobile phone, a portrait of their wounded friend just before he died. That image echoed the stories I had recorded during the many extensive interviews. I asked around and most refugees received digital images over the internet from friends and family that stayed behind. It made me realise that mobile phone images were of great importance to Iraqis, living within or outside their fatherland. In addition, I noticed that refugees use their mobile phones as family albums and newspapers. Against this background I decided to let the pictures of ordinary, non-professional photographers tell the story this time, in a new book, Baghdad Calling.

Photojournalism can involve quite formulaic permutations of stock gestures that are there to elicit sympathy from viewers. The face becomes a recurrent site of focus as a register of response to the horror of events. Is this tradition still important to you? I'm thinking of the way the images that have come to dominate the representation of Iraq are those amateur trophy pictures of torture and abuse in Abu Ghraib.
The media often communicates with just one image. Since the Middle Ages art has a tradition to communicate through iconography. A painting is one image. Not only the artist but also propagandists and the audience understands this kind of language. The prisoner in the snapshot image from Abu Ghraib stands with his arms spread, like Jesus on the cross. It is a longstanding tradition to visualise war, a tyrant, hunger, by going back to that one image that tells it all at once. As my career develops, the more distance I take from this approach. It doesn't relate to that multi-layered complexity with the many perspectives of hunger, the tyrant and war. I start to wonder why is it our obsession to browse in the mirror of our own worldview? Is it just to confirm exactly what we think the world is about, without knowing alternatives or other paradigms? Are the Abu Ghraib photographs the true representation of the US dominance in Iraq? Well, not if you'd asked the Bush government.

Good photojournalism is not created to make beautiful artistic images, it's made because you want to give attention to something important that did not get (enough) attention. The saying is that a good photograph tells more than a thousand words, well that rings true, but you have to bear in mind that those thousand words are never one-dimensional and always paradoxical. Sometimes a photographer shoots an image that gives a moment of clarity in our world of chaos. An image that touches us on a deep human level, an image that connects people. But that image can never give a definite explanation or judgement, I think. The appearance of objectivity in photojournalism is a very tricky manipulation. It suggest that you were the eye witness of a happening, but in fact, every choice made in the moment of recording, the crop, montage, influences the meaning of the image and that is why it is a manipulative medium. As a photojournalist you need to be very sound and careful.

I like to travel to troubled places with an investigative mind full of questions, a sharp eye and original analyses that raise more questions than they will give answers. It is seldom that I can show all that in just one image. I feel I can do that better in a sequence, a story of images. I do not pretend to know the truth, nor the answers. In photojournalism we often show a world so cruel, that it cannot be denied and I see no need to iconicise that reality because it is worse as it is. Design and art supports these thoughts in my books and exhibitions; supports the power of photography, the written language, the fantasy and knowledge of the reader and the witness and happening of the story. The great thing about art is that it does not explain anything, that's why every time you look at art you can discover something different, something new and while it flips and turns, you discover the multi layers, the complexity of the story. Working for Newsweek and Stern I saw most of my work lost after a week (readers throw it away) or kept in a drawer of the foreign editor, but good reportage in 30 years time is still relevant and valuable. If it is wrapped in a functional, innovative design no-one will throw it away with the garbage.

Kate Bush, the curator from the Barbican Art Gallery in London, called me an artist. I thought about it, but I am not very sure. An artist creates his own world, without restrictions, without any responsibility. A photojournalist does not have that kind of freedom, you always have to take responsibility.

Your use of cell-phone pictures in Baghdad Calling acknowledges and defers to the power of citizen photography. Of course these are not typical family photos, though there are lots that are typical, many are marked by the horrific situation they are taken in.
I am very concerned about the respect for the media. Our access is limited (see Gaza), often we are targets of violence, hatred. We are just messengers, important messengers I believe. You can measure the quality of a democracy by the quality of its arts and media. My step to use mobile citizen phone images for this book was radical, but I believe this was the only way to tell the story. We, the media, had no access to the story, the citizens of Iraq had access, unfortunate for them, every day. I did not know that citizen journalism was so alive, but when I found out I was fascinated. We collected the images for about a year and every time images came in, we were surprised how much what they showed confirmed what I had been told by the refugees. Images of areas without electricity, executed people lying in the dirt, blindfolded and handcuffed, explosions, but also modern people in front of a car or posters from Angelina Jolie and Shakira, Muslim and Christians who celebrated a wedding together, despite the danger of being caught, even a Muslim family that celebrated Christmas! I found the most fascinating aspect that these images were taken and sent to inform the refugees about life at home, a very personal new way of communication. These images were not taken with the intention to be published in the media, a book or shown in an exhibition.

The range and daunting complexity of the Iraq war certainly contributes to the rest of the world's difficulty in relating to what has been happening in Iraq. I thought the perspective of the individual is missing in our Western perception. And the personal mobile phone images bring that perspective back to the reader. They bring the number of dead, the statistics, back to the reality of the life of a human being, and that is something we CAN relate to.

The overriding sense of these appropriated pictures is to do with affect. As family album photos of a kind they connote intimacy. It is a tactic running through photojournalism- the snapshot as site of empathy and emotion. It's there in Don McCullin's memorable picture of the Fallen Vietcong with personal effects scattered, among them the portrait of his sweetheart. How important is this affective quality of the family photo for you?
The overriding sense of these appropriated pictures is to do with affect. As family album photos of a kind they connote intimacy. It is a tactic running through photojournalism- the snapshot as site of empathy and emotion. It's there in Don McCullin's memorable picture of the Fallen Vietcong with personal effects scattered, among them the portrait of his sweetheart. How important is this affective quality of the family photo for you?

The format of the book is interesting and follows on from Why Mister, Why? Only this time the cell-phone and digital pictures are printed on newspaper with rough edges. You use the same device of splitting double-page pictures with pages of text. In this book the first and last images form one single picture, the view of a street in Baghdad through a car windscreen. This gives the book a circular structure. There are other pictures of streets taken from cars that start and close the book. Can you say something about this structure?
I like stories with a beginning and an end. Both books have a filmic sense, as if you are on a journey through Iraq and history, it gives you a sense of being there. It gives you a structure. The journey in Baghdad Calling begins and ends indeed with several mobile phone images made from the inside of cars -the most safe place to take images secretly- showing the street scenes of a divided city at war. Chapters with (my own) text and photos cut into that circular structure, it makes you stop and wonder and, hopefully, you take time to read the text. This text is, to me, as important as the images.

The texts gives the testimonies of the refugees and are printed on straight-edged white paper that is slightly smaller than the newsprint. You also include your own pictures within the pages of text, pictures that are more colourful and vivid than the snapshot pictures. Many give us portraits of the refugees, there are also street shots of Damascus at night, the lush landscape of Kurdistan and one picture also shows us the portrait of the wounded doctor, but as it appears on the mobile phone and is held up to your camera, another similar photo shows someone pointing to a snapshot on a computer screen. Could you say why you felt it important to also include photographs that you had taken in this book? They help us get a sense of the life and situation of the refugees and at the same time show us where you were positioned in all this, remind us that the other pictures in the book are showing us something that you cannot photograph.
4.5 Million refugees and the Western world tend to deny them. My home country The Netherlands admitted 101 Iraqi refugees in 2007, the US only 5000. You mean 500?? Who and where are they, and why are they there? The images of the life of the Iraqi refugee are hidden inside the book, like the reality where they live that is hidden behind the thick walls of the apartments they rent from their last savings. My own images take a very modest place in the book. They help us to get a sense of the life and situation of the refugees and at the same time show us where I was positioned in all this, it reminds us that the other pictures in the book are showing us something I cannot photograph. The book tries to make the reader understand that there is that country we have no access to, where people are being murdered and tortured for no other reason then having the wrong identity card! That is a difficult story to consume, to bring to the reader. I hope the personal stories and the private mobile phone images can give you something to relate to and become interested. I hope the innovative design helps you to turn those pages and look and read and understand the whole, that the book gives you a new and different perspective on the war in Iraq.

The pictures in Baghdad Calling are mediated yet at the same time close to the lived situation in Baghdad. The strategy seems to avoid the colonising relationship underpinning photojournalism of foreign places. You allow the represented subject both a voice, in the testimonies of the often horrific experiences of those who had been forced to flee Iraq, and give importance and visibility to the pictures the Iraqi people had made as a record of their existence.
The Iraqi citizen images show people who feature in the news every day, but whom we never encounter. These images did not get through the filters of professional photographers' eyes, who are often outsiders, that increases the narrative power of the collection. These small digital files have a stunning impact: up close you see pixels and other chaotic details, emphasising the fragility of these amateur pictures (and life in the war zone). Viewed from a little distance they become strong, personal, intimate and emotional photographs. As a group they have a narrative momentum, revealing what was hidden for the mainstream media behind the ongoing violence of the Iraq war in 2005-2007.

It's almost as if Baghdad Calling starts to access those private spaces and realms that are shown being turned over by the soldiers in Why Mister, Why? There's one particular picture from Why Mister Why? where troops are seen looking through a family album in their searches for photos they can use to interrogate the men they had arrested in a raid on a hotel in Samarra. Baghdad Calling takes us into the space of such a photo album.
You get the picture! Even though Why Mister, Why? and Baghdad Calling are different books, dealing with different chapters in Iraq's recent history, they are related and have the same appeal and meaning. It gives prominence to the story of the individual (from soldier to civilian) who deals with the consequence of war. Zeinab, a refugee in Amman recently told me: 'Please let the world know we are human beings, that we are just like them. We had a life in Iraq, it might not have been perfect and not according to Western standards, but we had a life and we want it back. We need to make a start to trust and forgive each other.'

You mention a relation between the structure of both your books and film. Is film a medium that you are interested in working with in future? Certainly the installation of Baghdad Calling in Brighton last year, was very filmic, with sequences of the projected images accompanied by an audio of the testimonies.




info@geertvankesteren.com

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Geert van Kesteren (born 1966) is a photographer based in Amsterdam. His photography is acclaimed for a cinematic feel of storytelling; an author with a camera that gives insights into the psyche and soul of conflict. His landmark books, 'Why Mister, Why?' and 'Baghdad Calling' about the war in Iraq, serve as a new model for the possibilities of engaged and innovative documentary.  He is recipient of several major fellowships from the BKVB, Mondriaan and D&M Foundations and was awarded the Infinity Award 2009 in Photojournalism from the ICP in New York. His work is represented in the collection of the Dutch Photo Museum and Rijks Museum and presented in most major international magazines, including Newsweek, Stern, the Independent and GEO magazine. Van Kesteren’s photographs have been featured in numerous solo and group exhibitions, including Recontres d’ Arles, Visa d’Or and recently at the British Museum, the Barbican Art Gallery and the 2008 Brighton Photo Biennial.  His first monograph, Mwendanjangula! Aids in Zambia, was published by Mets & Schilt in 2000. Since then Geert van Kesteren has published Why Mister, Why? (2004) and Baghdad Calling (2008). Both books, reflecting on the war in Iraq, became instant-classics. Van Kesteren was a nominee at Magnum Photos (2005-2008) and since 2006 in the Advisory Board of World Press Photo.

PUBLICATIONS

MWENDANJANGULA!
Aids in Zambia.
Photographs: Geert van Kesteren.
Text: Arthur van Amerongen
Publisher: Mets & Schilt, Amsterdam and D. Philip Publishers, Cape Town, 2000
Dutch or English

WHY MISTER, WHY?
Iraq 2003-2004
Photographs and text: Geert van Kesteren.
Design: Mevis & Van Deursen.
Editing: Edie Peters.
Publisher: Artimo 2004
Dutch-Arabic or English-Arabic

BAGHDAD CALLING
Reports from Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Iraq
Photographs, interviews and text: Geert van Kesteren.
Digital & Mobile Phone images: Iraqi civilians.
Design: Mevis & Van Deursen.
Editing: Edie Peters.
Publisher: Episode 2008.
Dutch or English